I think this is one of the most powerful moments in David Suchet’s portrayals of Poirot. In the 2010 version of Murder on the Orient Express, the ending was not like the book nor the 2017 version. Give the ending a listen (spoiler alert of course). Given the currently poor state of cultural and political dialog, I think it’s worth a listen. Especially now that we have people calling for active dissolution of government systems that have (in some opinions) failed us:
Hercule Poirot: [furious] You people! With your kangaroo jury, your kangaroo justice! You had no right to take the law into your own hands!
Hildegarde Schmidt: M-m-monsieur Poirot, she was *five years old*!
Caroline Hubbard: We were good civilized people, and then evil got over the wall, and we looked to the law for justice, and the law let us down.
Hercule Poirot: No! No, you behave like this and we become just… savages in the street! The juries and executioners, they elect themselves! No, it is medieval! The rule of law, it must be held high! If it falls you pick it up and hold it even higher! For all of society, all civilized people will have nothing to shelter them if it is destroyed!
Greta Ohlsson: There is a higher justice than the rule of law, monsieur!
Hercule Poirot: Then you let *God* administer it… not *you*!
Greta Ohlsson: And when he doesn’t? When he creates a Hell on Earth for those wronged? When priests who are supposed to act in his name forgive what must never be forgiven? Jesus said, “Let those without sin throw the first stone.”
Hercule Poirot: Oui!
Greta Ohlsson: Well, we were without sin, monsieur! *I* was without sin!
Wow, so much going on in this encounter!
Firstly, it’s interesting that modern movies so often ascribe the wrongs in the world to God. Many movies love to take cheap shots at theism and often use evil in the world as proof of God’s nonexistence. Yet they somehow forget that if this proves God doesn’t exit, we’re left with the exact same conclusion as if you are a theist. Just looking at the situation, you must conclude that all the wrongs in this story were committed by very human people (Cassetti’s murder of a 5 year old and then each of the 12 that committed his murder) or the failure of our human institutions (Cassetti’s escape from police/justice) – not God. For those that allow for the existence of God, we were created and granted the freedom we are both blessed and cursed with – to choose good or evil. Should we blame God that some will invariably choose evil? Why do we blame God when our own justice systems fail? Evil didn’t ‘get in over the wall’ or get magically done by God killing a 5 year old – it came from a very real person who chose it. It’s a tired trope, and one I wish we could get beyond.
Next, Poirot is taking a very bold stance against this group that isn’t what we usually see these days: that we must not take the law into our own hands. Instead he asserts as strongly as one might that we must commit ourselves even more to fixing our justice systems when they fail us, not destroying or ignoring them when we feel justified in doing so. We love our Dirty Harry’s and vigilantes that bring justice. The A-Team and Batman fit this description, but Poirot emphatically stands against this. He makes the very valid argument that if people start taking the law into their own hands, then all of us will suffer. He rightly claims that society as we know it depends on each of us committing ourselves to a common justice and application of law. His argument would be that we have fought long and hard to come from mob and street justice Medieval times. It is this common bond of assenting to our societies system of justice that is what protects all of us from each other.
Caroline retorts that the law let them down, and Greta screams that justice isn’t just some block of laws, but that it’s something higher – something innate to us, something we all immediately recognize and demand. This is true! We do not derive our morality from a book of laws, our book of laws come from our sense of morality! So is it a surprise that even after 100’s of years, our laws do not capture all the truths and fairness we feel? Studies have shown consistently that children have a consistent sense of fairness and right from a very early age – across all races, genders, and parts of the world. A person who has read Genesis would agree: if we were created to live in perfect peace and harmony in the Garden of Eden, of course we have a sense of what is right in our very fiber. It’s innate to us, created in us. But since the fall, we lost our ability to live it perfectly.
The reality, whether you are a theist or not, is that some will choose to commit wrongs on others – even horrific crimes. Unfortunately, Greta again blames God for the evil Cassetti commits. She then makes the mistake that many make: she seems so assured of her sense of rightness, her moral superiority (aka ‘lack of sin’) makes her worthy to carry out lethal justice they did not get from the courts. I’m no expert, but I bet every other person on that train that knew Greta could probably have named a few of her failings – so none of us should ever assert we’re sin-free. As for following our conscious in the face of moral outrage, we absolutely should do so in the face of injustice. Even to heroic levels that might even cost our lives – but Poirot asserts that those efforts should not be directed at taking the law into our own hands, but to pour all that effort into fixing what failed – so that ALL of society can enjoy the benefits. When we take matters into our own hands, we allow a broken system to remain broken for others. So to work for justice means to work to fix the systems we have in place so that ALL of society can enjoy the fruits. That’s how we have such a better system than we had when death was delivered by the sword on a whim. Each of us can contribute, each of us can bring the injustice committed to us and make it benefit all of mankind – but it may take time, patience, and may not come out perfectly. Yet the alternative is that the system remains broken, more people can exploit the growing holes, and on top of that, we end up putting ourselves at risk (as these 12 did) by committing crimes themselves. This is what Poirot is saying, not that Cassetti didn’t deserve justice, but that vigilante justice is a selfish act – one that ultimately damages the delivery of the very justice they crave.
So what about that appeal Poirot makes to God? Is he telling us when our laws or human justice fail us, we are supposed to idly stand by like sheep and let evil run amok? Many modern minds would probably think this is what he’s saying – but it is exactly the opposite! He and Greta are actually referring to different things. Greta is equating human justice to divine justice, as the same thing – and hence she sees both God and God’s justice as having failed them. But Poirot, as a Catholic, does not equate them. There is human justice and divine justice. To Poirot, he acknowledges there is divine justice – but that justice deals with ultimate battles of good and evil – such as the forgiveness man cannot give himself with the fall, but seeing that as seperate from human justice.
This is where a Catholic understanding (and Poirot was Catholic – a fact re-iterated by his scenes of praying the rosary) of salvation history comes into play. God created human beings to be co-creators with God. We are given dominion, stewardship, and creative abilities over all of creation. Even non-believers can recognize humans have a unique place in all of the earth. Our minds can come up with great artistic expressions of paintings, music, and art. Our minds can plumb great depths of science from subatomic particles to the furthest reaches of the universe. We have the ability to live anywhere in the world, and even in space by our efforts. We can even generate new life by having children together. We are soul and material beings – together. The whole story of the bible is a story of God trying to build and rebuild relationship with our very material selves. God creates women and men from the very material stuff of the universe. He makes all of creation to enjoy and thrive from. God makes covenants with specific nations as a light for all peoples. God grants the childless children, or lands to live on as inheritance. God helps them in struggles and battles. God gives them food in the desert and when Jesus feeds the 5000. God lifts up human prophets to speak through. God punishes unfaithfulness by revoking material gifts. Jesus came in bodily form. Jesus cured bodily ills as well as spiritual ones. Every piece of salvation history shows that the concrete world is meant to be a part of our salvation story. And so too all the systems we have in it. Poirot, and the Catholic stance, would be that it is our job as human agents to bring the love, justice, and truth of God to every corner of our fallen world, even the darkest places and crimes, not to create more darkness and crimes by vigilante justice.
Poirot was able to figure out this case. Namely, that 12 people that conspired to commit and hide a murder, despite its complexities. He even figured out Cassetti’s role and crimes. Therefore, Poirot sees human law is able to bring justice to even this, so why should this case allow for vigilantism when it could just as easily be brought to justice the ‘right’ way? When we find flaws with our justice and law, we must not discard all the sacrifices and hard-fought battles that have brought us the infinitely better systems of justice we enjoy today because of one failure. If we do not believe this, then people become self-righteous and begin to take the law into their own hands – as these 12 people did. Even when they are right in wanting to punish a guilty person – they become the destroyers of the very social fabric and justice they want. They circumvent all social agreements and demonstrate that anyone can now operate above the law based on their own judgement and sense of ‘right’. This situation, if carried out by many, will collapse all of society and we’ll return to the barbarism of the sword we had before where people deliver swift and deadly retribution without answering to anyone.
But even more than this, perhaps greater than these points, Poirot has recognized the tragedy that has happened to those on this train. As for the ‘hell’ that Gretta speaks of – she was right. There was is a hell on earth. It was in each of their hearts. The horrific death of one child has destroyed 12 people’s worlds. Cast them into a living hell on earth of pain and grief. The unhealed grief, horror, shock, anger, hatred, and pain each one is in now has also led each of them choosing revenge. Just after this scene, we see one man threaten to add another murder – the murder of Poirot – so they can all escape. “Why not?” he says, “We’ve all committed one murder. What’s one more?” The descent into barbarism starts accelerating.
He recognizes each of the lies they’re telling themselves to justify what they’ve done and what a tragic thing has happened to them. This is why his retort about letting God administer justice – but those realms are that of the divine. Divine justice is that what happens in each heart that rights the wrongs there. Repentance and forgiveness is a grace – a healing grace – that allows us not to become trapped by the wrongs of the past. To start anew. A short time later, Poirot reveals this insight in a conversation he has in private after the group confrontation:
Mary Debenham: You said of the woman in Istanbul that she knew the rules of her culture and knew what breaking them would mean. So did Cassetti.
Hercule Poirot: [harshly] And so do you!
Mary Debenham: When you’ve been denied justice… you are incomplete. It feels that God has abandoned you in a stark place. I asked God… I think we all did… what we should do, and he said do what is right. And I thought if I did, it would make me complete again.
Hercule Poirot: [coldly] And are you?
Mary Debenham: [long pause, then] But I did what was right.
I think we can all sympathize with the brokenness of Mary. I think all of us have felt betrayed or let down by something we trusted in at some point. Perhaps we’ve lost something that seems unbearable to lose, or experienced an evil that has utterly changed our lives forever. This does happen in our world. I also honestly believe she could have prayed about what to do and even been told to ‘do what is right’. The problem comes in this: what is right? (or as Pilot says at the trial of Jesus, “What is truth?”)
We know by Mary’s response, as does Poirot, that the murder done ‘for justice’ really hasn’t helped. The loss, pain, and tragedy are all still there. She’s still living the hell on earth they talk about, but now she has murder on her conscience too. What she thought was ‘right’ has turned out to have made things even worse – for her. Sure, maybe Cassetti has been brought to a type of justice, but Mary’s situation has remained the same. Her pain is all still there. What is right would be to find a way to bring Cassetti to justice and to find healing and forgiveness in her heart. Instead, evil has begot more evil, and she is worse off than she started.
So what hope do we have in finding peace? What way are we to follow? In what can anyone put their trust in a world in which many feel lost or angry? This is where the Christian stands up and emphatically says, “To follow Christ!”. Early Christians were actually called ‘Followers of The Way’. When we put our trust in ‘The Way’ Jesus has taught us to live, and then truly put those teachings into action, we are promised peace. This is the harsh truth. That revenge does not bring peace. Instead, the acts of revenge are now heaped on top of all the rest of the pain, hurt, anger, fear, emptiness, etc. Instead, Jesus taught that we are to forgive those who wrong us, to offer love in turn for hate. Only by this method will Mary, or any of us, find peace after great evil has touched us. Instead of blaming God for the evil committed by our fellow man, we should find a way to bring our fellow man to justice and correction, while thanking God we have been given the means to do so: via the teachings and forgiveness of Christ!
Forgiving when we are wronged, comfort the sorrowing, compassion for those crushed by life, providing education to the uneducated, give medical assistance to those in need, to fight for justice here and trust in final justice beyond instead of trying to administer it ourselves, to give temporal care to those in need, to visit the imprisoned, assist the crippled, house the homeless, warm the cold, welcome the widow, refuge, and child, and yes, even returning forgiveness for murder are not just platitudes. They are real, concrete, and the way we find peace in the horror of evil. It is how evil is defeated, even if it wins temporary victories. Christ even gave forgiveness – as he hung nailed and dying – to the persons crucifying him.
This is what Christ taught, and the answer to “Do what is right”. In the western world, it’s also the foundation of all our laws and culture – for well over 1000 years. Despite its flaws, it’s still one of the most equitable, fair, and amazing systems in which all people are recognized with inherent rights of their human being (their creation in the image of God).
Further, God never claimed this way would be easy or we can do it perfectly. It might cost us career paths, friends, fame, or force us to confront our worst enemies with compassion. It might even cost our lives as it did for Jesus – but to what else are each of us giving our lives? As for me, I would rather give my life in service to the teachings of Christ above like popular opinion and fad activism that comes and goes like leaves in the wind every year.
I think this is a good reflection when we’re in an increasingly UN-forgiving state of political discourse in our country. We have turned to wanting to get vengeance, like these 12 did, on those we don’t agree with. So assured we’re right, and justified to ourselves. Yet the promise is the same: it will not bring back the dead, it will not fill our emptiness and hurt, it will not calm our fears, it will not bring peace. Instead, we’ll just heap new hurts on top of the old. Perhaps we should all reflect on that the next time we post on Facebook.